“President Lincoln who was bearded, whose first name was Abraham, and who had freed the slaves [was], therefore, no doubt at all, a Jew, something the goyim would not concede, of course.” So riffed Yiddish poet J. L. Teller on behalf of his landslayt in his flavorsome memoir Strangers and Natives: The Evolution of the American Jews From 1921 to the Present. And so it might seem in the newly released Lincoln, a movie directed and written by two of America’s most Jewish-American dramatic artists, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner.
Lincoln’s Lincoln (played with animatronic gravitas by a looming, stooped, all but unrecognizable Daniel Day-Lewis) is not, of course, literally Jewish—any more than, as has also been wishfully suggested of Lincoln, a person of African descent or a closeted homosexual or a vampire-hunter or an E.T. born on the planet Krypton. What out-group would not wish to identify with America’s greatest and, in many respects its least likely, president?
Endearingly or infuriatingly human in life, Lincoln endures in death as the profile on the most plebian, ubiquitous, and worthless of American coins as well as the colossal figure enshrined in a memorial of Greco-Roman-Egyptian proportions—his sculpted visage, as described by the narrator of The Plot Against America, Philip Roth’s fantasy of a corn-fed fascist state, looking like “the most hallowed possible amalgamation—the face of God and the face of America all in one.”
As imagined by Spielberg and Kushner, Lincoln’s Lincoln is the ultimate mensch. He is a skilled natural psychologist, an interpreter of dreams, and a man blessed with an extraordinarily clever and subtle legal mind. A master storyteller who speaks in parables and employs slyly self-deprecating humor, he is a small “d” democrat glad to converse with anyone, willing to shoulder the solitary burden of historical tragedy, and, although capable of righteous wrath, ruled by compassion for all.
As imagined by Spielberg and Kushner, Lincoln’s Lincoln is the ultimate mensch.
Lincoln itself is suffused with menschlichkheit. It opens, like Saving Private Ryan, with a visceral evocation of war: brutal hand-to-hand combat in the rain and mud. But this bit of Spielbergistic virtuosity aside, the movie is surprisingly unprepossessing, even humble. Shot by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski, the interior spaces are dark and cramped—although Lincoln seldom fails to radiate light. Day-Lewis’ delivery is anything but stentorian and appears to have taken its cadences from those of homespun humorist Will Rogers. Despite a two-hours-and-twenty-minute running time, the movie scarcely suffers from the inflation of previous Spielberg movies. The director’s style is unusually restrained—although he can’t entirely resist gilding the lily with reaction shots of wonder or composer John Williams’ mournful fanfares.
Rarely does the movie call attention to itself as art. (Did Lincoln ever actually say, speaking of slavery, that, “we’re whalers and we finally put a harpoon in the whale’s back”—unavoidably conjuring the most obsessed leader in American literature? Was Lincoln’s youngest son Tad really haunted by daguerreotypes of slaves, and did he use them to make magic lantern shows—an activity that casts him as a precocious Spielberg?) Kushner, as might be expected, writes some excellent dialogue—and not just for the movie’s protagonist. Mary Todd Lincoln (passionately played by Sally Fields) has two fierce scenes, one in which she dresses down the leader of the radical Republicans, Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), and another in which she reproaches her husband for the death of their second son, Willie.
A movie of words as much as images, in some ways closer to the cinema of Ken Burns than that of John Ford, Lincoln is an engrossing and even stirring civics lesson that tries, with admirable responsibility if only mixed success, to give voice to black America. At one point, Lincoln is questioned by his wife’s Negro companion (Gloria Reuben), the movie’s stand-in for the formerly enslaved, as to his own thinking: “White people don’t want us here—any of them. Do you?” His answer, as is historically correct, is ambiguous.
In general, Lincoln takes pains to correct the historical, or at least movieland, record. Stevens is portrayed as an irascible hero—rather than the stubborn, self-righteous hypocrite of his fictionalized counterpart Austin Stoneman in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Jones’ Stevens is not only a dead ringer for Ralph Lewis’ Stoneman but, like Stoneman, is sexually involved with his mulatto housekeeper—the difference being that while Stoneman is bewitched, the fearsome Stevens is tenderly in love.
Drawn largely and with great skill from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s popular history Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln is concerned almost entirely with the president’s success in getting the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery through the lame-duck House of Representatives in advance of the South’s imminent surrender—and (spoiler alert) the movie’s lone Rocky moment of ecstatic self-congratulation is reserved for the amendment’s climactic passage with the victorious congressmen spontaneously bursting into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The essential point is however more prosaic. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs: Much of Lincoln is devoted to the scramble to secure sufficient votes to pass the amendment. The colorful arm-twisting, hardball-politicking, and shameless use of patronage to get the job done can hardly fail to remind the viewer of the shenanigans required to pass the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Nor is it difficult to make the connection between a vilified president who is essentially a conciliatory moderate surrounded by angry adversaries and mistrustful allies and the newly re-elected leader of our own divided land.
The story of a man who successfully leads the oppressed out of bondage but is unable himself to enter the Promised Land is not a narrative original to Lincoln—nor was it the original Lincoln narrative. For the first half century after his death, Lincoln was not primarily recognized as the Great Emancipator—except, perhaps, by African-Americans. Lincoln was rather praised as a self-made man of the people, a frontier hero, a pious Christian, an eloquent speaker, and a charitable victor.
There has never been a more elaborate commemoration of an American leader than the 1909 centennial of Lincoln’s birth. The Lincoln who was memorialized on the National Mall was not the hero who abolished slavery but the one who preserved the Union; blacks invited to its 1922 dedication ceremony were seated, less than optimally, in a designated “colored section.” Not until 1939, when, having been forbidden to perform at Constitution Hall, the contralto Marian Anderson sang instead at the Lincoln Memorial was the association between the memorial and racial freedom concretized.
While it would be an overstatement to say that American Jews popularized the notion of Lincoln as liberator, it is true that the development of that Lincoln coincides with the Americanization of Jewish immigrants—and particularly the coming of the New Deal. Yet in some ways the Jewish Lincoln was born the moment the man himself died. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, America’s martyred leader was eulogized at Temple Emanu-El as the successor to the biblical Jewish patriarch: “Even as God said to Abraham, the patriarch, that he was to be the father of many peoples, so did God select Abraham Lincoln to be the protector and father of a great people.” A Baltimore rabbi called the slain president “spirit of our spirit and essence of our essence,” with a nature that was “truly Judaic.”
Sixty years later, the comparison between Lincoln and Moses was commonplace. According to historian Beth S. Wenger, whose History Lessons details the formation of an American-Jewish heritage, “More than any other American hero, Lincoln was embraced in radical Jewish circles.
Yiddish schools nearly always celebrated his birthday, teaching children to revere the Great Emancipator. … [Yiddish poet] Morris Rosenfeld described Lincoln as a champion of human rights who freed the nation’s conscience.
Certain Jewish socialists even went so far as to claim that their esteem for Lincoln was more authentic than that of most Americans.
(One case in point, writer-director Abraham Lincoln Polonsky, born in the Bronx to an immigrant family of free-thinking radicals, would grow up to be the dean of the Hollywood blacklist.)
In the 1930s, Lincoln was cast as the progressive forebear of Franklin Roosevelt, another president imagined to be Jewish, albeit by anti-Semites. This New Deal-Pop Front Lincoln can be found in Carl Sandberg’s two-volume, best-selling biography; in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, with Henry Fonda in the title role; and in FDR speechwriter Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Abe Lincoln in Illinois—not to mention as the namesake of Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln School, the volunteer fascist-fighting Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and, a bit later, New York’s New Lincoln school and the Lincoln Farm Work Camp in Roscoe, N.Y.
The fictional embodiment of the people’s Lincoln is Ira Ringold, the working-class hero of Roth’s I Married a Communist, who rises to fame in the aftermath of World War II as a Lincoln impersonator doing “a bang-up job bringing Lincoln to the masses.” Ringold is a modern-day Jewish Lincoln, addressing union meetings and political rallies and even responding to audience questions as the Great Emancipator: “Lincoln supporting price controls. Lincoln condemning the Smith Act. Lincoln defending workers’ rights. Lincoln vilifying Mississippi’s Senator Bilbo.” And, we might mentally add, with respect to the presidential election of 1948: Lincoln denouncing segregation. Lincoln speaking out against domestic fascism. Lincoln supporting the right of Jews to their own state in Palestine.
Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln is scarcely so topical or lithe. In fact, in a certain way, it’s timeless. There’s not much talk of God and—“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” notwithstanding—even less talk of the Jewish prophet whose teachings are America’s official dogma. Not to say that certain biblical figures go unmentioned. In one of his last scenes, heavy with premonition of impending death, Lincoln tells his wife Mary that his greatest post-presidential desire is to visit the place “where David and Solomon walked”—Jerusalem: “I dream of walking in that ancient city.” In the Jewishly tinged cosmology of Lincoln, he pretty much does.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.